Googling My Mother

Writing a biography in the digital age.

Listen to John Dickerson’s radio piece about his mother here, or sign up for Slate’s free daily podcast on iTunes.

One morning, my mother’s grave appeared in my inbox. The grass had grown back around it after the burial. The stone looked pinker than I remembered. The “Beloved Wife and Mother” written on it struck me as odd. Was that inscription always there? It seemed antiquated, like something you’d see in a small town cemetery, and, in my mother’s case, also a little limiting. These are the details you seize on when you’re suddenly confronted by Section 3, Grave 1316-A-LH before your first cup of coffee.

I had asked for it. I was writing On Her Trail, a book about my mother, Nancy Dickerson, which was published this week. Early in the process, I instructed a few Internet search engines to make a daily pass of the Web and to e-mail me whenever they found something. Mom had been a famous reporter, so I knew I’d get some responses. That day, she was discovered on a Web site dedicated to those buried at Arlington Cemetery. (My stepfather, John Whitehead, was a commander in the Navy.)

I was writing the book to figure out who my mother was, which might have seemed like a silly enterprise, since when I was growing up it seemed like everyone knew who my mother was. She was the first female network correspondent for CBS and the first woman star of the Washington TV-news corps. But I missed most of my mother’s career. I was born when Mom was 41, and by the time I was old enough to know what the news was, she had left the network and her stardom had faded. There were no videotapes of her newscasts during the ‘60s and ‘70s, just pictures of her with Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon on the piano. (Now, in the age of TiVo, my children can’t miss my appearances on even the lowest-rated cable show. Plus, I give them candy to watch).

My mom with JFK just after his inauguration

I also missed most of my mother’s career because I didn’t care about it. Mom and I were enemies for the first part of the 27 years we knew each other. I moved out of our house at age 14 when my parents divorced, and I never lived with her again. But our cold war ended soon after I found myself joining her profession in 1993. We became pals and, for a few years, traded gossip every day. We didn’t talk about the past but the news in front of us, as if we were colleagues. Then, in January 1996 she had a brutal stroke. A year and a half later, it killed her.

The initial basket of Internet search results brought back a host of items I’d never seen—footage of Mom narrating the return of John Kennedy’s body as it was brought back to Andrews Air Force Base and an account of a Nixon interview. The eBay alert found copies of her autobiography, her NBC portrait, and a 1964 Saturday Evening Post article published four years before I was born. (Her Supersister trading card I did recognize. As a 10-year-old, I found it disappointing because it didn’t come with bubble gum and I couldn’t trade it for Pete Rose’s rookie card.)

The bulletins from the Web slowed to a few each week. New deliveries meant someone had just referred to her in the newspaper or, more often, an old posting that had been missed in the initial trawl, like the picture of her childhood home or a 1960 profile from her college alumni magazine. I knew the delay came from a quirk in the software, but these finds felt special and hard-won, as if they’d been unearthed from behind an old can of nails in the back of someone’s musty garage.

An undated photograph from the late 1950s

Mom herself kept a lot, though she was too glamorous for garages. After she died I received 20 boxes of her journals and newspaper clippings and photographs. She saved the rice from Luci Johnson’s 1966 wedding and the 800-page report she’d worked on in 1956 as a clerk for the Senate foreign-relations committee. She was a C-SPAN bag lady.

But what you keep about yourself is different from what other people keep about you. The little automated e-mail scouts were a way to screen for what might have been enduring about what she achieved. She’d been famous, but was any of it real? An old news clipping from 1961 named her among the best coifed women in America. That was hardly worth editing the tombstone for. Judith Shellenberger’s story, though, might be. In November of 2005, the foundation director attended a White House youth conference and breakfasted with Laura Bush. In an article about the trip, Shellenberger looked back on her career and said Mom had been her inspiration. “I wanted to be Nancy Dickerson,” she told her local paper. I read this and wrote her to ask what she meant. “Nancy Dickerson changed my whole life by inspiring me to pursue my dreams,” she replied. “My whole career has centered on the motivation your mother gave me. The fact that I too could be a strong career woman.”

I had heard this sentiment before but never really believed it. It wasn’t just that I’m an oafish male unwise to the struggle of the sisterhood. I’d heard the tribute too many times. So many women had told me that Mom’s pathbreaking career was their inspiration that the praise had become rote. Growing up in Washington, I was too used to hearing meaningless compliments dished out in earnest tones. It’s our folk language. But when Schellenger’s story came in over the transom, it seemed more authentic and objective for having been unsolicited. Suddenly, I was struck by the tonnage of the similar stories I’d heard but never listened to.

In 1970 in her arms at age 2

The Internet’s long tail was working for me. Joyce Ladner, a former president of Howard Univeristy, remembered meeting Mom at Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. Lew Goodman of Parkchester, N.Y., remembered the day Mom announced that the Beatles had arrived in America. As archived newspapers started to go online, Mom’s history came back. Almost 300 of them mention Nancy Hanschman, her maiden name, which she used when she first went on air. The new data were almost always surprising, but what was most powerful was how they arrived. I’d never written a book before, but I’d written plenty of profiles. Doing so meant sitting down with my pile of books and papers and interview notes and following a thread until I’d forced it into squeaky shape like a balloon animal. You know what you’re looking for, or at least you know that you’re looking. You occupy a confined intellectual and physical space. But these alerts didn’t work like that. They were off fishing for me, and the minute they hooked something, they brought it back and served it up without a filter and on their own time. Since I carry a BlackBerry (or it carries me), they were with me on the ride to work or blinking just before I put out the bedside light.

I had shoved away my mother and her fame during the ugliest time in my adolescence. Her every letter and phone call had been an outrageous interruption. Now I was calling for her intrusions. Almost everything that arrived came from the period of her life I never experienced. Combined with my methodical slog through the materials she left me, the woman who was interrupting me on my BlackBerry became more real than the woman who had pasted back my cowlick and taken me to the doctor. She was authentic and natural, qualities I hadn’t seen much with my own eyes.

Though she had been dead for eight years, I couldn’t shake the impulse to ask my mother about what I was discovering. This had the nagging effect of producing a recurring dream of being able to fill out an online form to ask her questions that she could answer through e-mail. (I think Google’s working on a purchase of Sé after they get that YouTube thing worked out.)

Now that the book is done, the alerts continue, but oddly, they’ve turned into vanity events, letting me know about reviews and reactions to the book—to my mother, but as I have presented her. They’ve lost their magic. Still, the parallels of our two lives, now wound together in this book, continue to surprise me. Though no one planned it this way, the final deadline for my manuscript fell on my birthday. This week, the book hit the newsstands, and I saw Mom’s tombstone again, this time in person, on the ninth anniversary of her death.

A version of this piece appears in the Washington Post Outlook section.